If a dish tastes great, who quibbles over authenticity? France’s famous bean stew rich with duck, pork, and sausage with generous lashings of duck fat, and onion, herbs, and a crust of browned crumbs on top probably has as many variations on its home turf as cooks who make it. So the version that follows will come pretty darn close to whatever the real thing is, but mainly it is so luscious that I for one could care less whether it does or not.
Cassoulet is cold weather food. It will power you through bringing in arm loads of firewood, shoveling snow, and scaping ice off your windshield. It’s classic “better the next day” fare, too, and the last bits from the bottom of the pot need to be carefully and lovingly dabbed up with good bread.
White beans are the usual choice for cassoulet. I used cannellinis that I grew. I get a big kick out of growing drying beans, and Silver Cloud are my favorite cannellinis. But truly, here in Maine we have wonderful baking beans like Yellow Eyes, Jacobs Cattle, and Soldier beans that are suitable for cassoulet, also.
I am lucky to live close enough to a custom butcher shop that acquiring duck legs is easy, but if you can’t find them where you regularly shop, go ahead and use chicken. Keep the skin on. For pork, a pound or so of shoulder meat, or a couple of pork chops, preferably from the shoulder end, with a bone still in, or a couple of country-style ribs are the best choices. Garlic or plain pork sausage links work really well because each person will be served a section of link cooked in the cassoulet. You will brown each of the meats before adding them to the cook pot along with the fat rendered out.
You can get away with water alone to cook the beans and meats together, but a more savory addition is chicken stock, the kind that gels when it is cold. We used pinot grigio for the wine but chardonnay will work well, too. Don’t forget bay leaves. Some people use a little finely chopped carrot and celery in addition to the onion and garlic. It’s up to you.
We have swooned over this dish at this house. Our friend Cris has made it twice so far, and three of us dined three times on it; the last time around we sopped up last bits with crusty bread and stared disconsolately into an empty pot.
- 2 slices of salt pork or smoky bacon cut into half-inch pieces. (Use kitchen scissors.)
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2-3 cloves of garlic, chopped
- 4 duck or chicken legs
- 3 links of garlic sausage
- 2 fatty pork chops or 2 country-style pork ribs
- 2 cups dry white beans, soaked overnight (will yield about four to five cups beans soaked)
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 teaspoon thyme
- ½ cup chicken broth
- ½ cup white wine
- Warm water
- 1 cup buttered crumbs
- In a heavy cook pot or Dutch oven, begin to fry the bacon pieces and when they are about half done, add the onions and garlic and cook until they are soft, about five minutes. Remove and set aside.
- Brown the duck legs, pork, and sausage in turn until they are golden colored. Set aside.
- Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Return about half the bacon and onion mixture to the pot, and add about a third of the beans.
- Top that with the pork chops, and fill in with sausage.
- Add another third of the beans and top that layer with duck legs.
- Add the remaining beans, bay leaves, thyme, chicken broth, wine and add enough warm water to nearly cover the ingredients.
- Put a lid on the pot and put it in the oven, reducing the temperature after half an hour to 300.
- Cook in the oven for an additional two hours,
- Remove the lid and sprinkle the crumbs over the top of the stew and bake for another half hour.